Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Easter After Tremors
Really Living
John 15:1-8

(Shared with the people of Friendship Church, May 18, 2003)

When I was growing up, most of my friends liked horror movies. I could never get into them. One reason was that a recurring plot line in horror movies revolved around corpses being re-animated. And one universal element of the stories is that the moving corpses were never really brought back to life. Oh, they moved and breathed, growled and killed. But theirs was only a sort of a vague half-life. They weren’t really among the living.

I used to think that these movies were works of the purest fiction. Nobody, I thought, could have the appearance of being alive—walking, breathing, and so on—but really be dead. Jesus’ words in our Bible lesson today suggest that you and I live in a world filled with the walking dead. Some might even be part of a church.

A few years ago, a one-time member of this congregation approached me with a concern. Her father, by then in his seventies, was bringing a lawsuit against a woman whose car had brushed his in a mall parking lot, where he sat waiting for his wife. Even though both he and his car were fine, he claimed that he’d suffered physically. The daughter said to me, “Mark, this is the last straw for me! My dad has always gone to church, been on the church council, gone to Sunday School. But he’s also always tried to shaft other people in order to get some advantage. He even pushes people out of the way in order to be first in a check-out line. But I hadn’t realized how horrible he was until he sued this poor young woman who nicked his car. How can he call himself a Christian?”

When she asked me that, I remembered an old saying: Just because the mouse lives in the cookie jar doesn’t mean he’s a cookie. You can take up space in church activities and even be diligent about reading your Bible and praying, doing all the right religious things, and still not have life through Jesus Christ. You can be as far from the Kingdom of God as the mouse in the cookie jar is from being a cookie. That woman’s father was among the walkng dead—a dead man walking—that populate our churches.

Such people contrast vividly with a woman some of us have read about recently as we’ve studied John Ortberg’s book, The Life You’ve Always Wanted. Mabel was a resident of a nursing home, blind, nearly-deaf, and suffering from a cancer that was eating away at her face, hideously disfiguring her. Bedridden for twenty-five years, with no known relatives, Mabel should have been bitter, incommunicative, self-absorbed.

When a student chaplain, Tom Schmidt, decided to militate against his revulsion and try to present this awful-looking woman with a flower, he figured Mabel would be unresponsive. “Here’s a flower,” he said. “Happy Mother’s Day.” Mabel pulled the flower close to her face, attempting to smell it and then, in somewhat slurred speech, said, “Thank you. It’s lovely. But can I give it to someone else? I can’t see it, you know, I’m blind.” So, Schmidt rolled Mabel to another resident and heard her say of the flower, “Here, this is from Jesus.” “That,” said Tom Schmidt, “was when it began to dawn on me that this was not an ordinary human being.”

As Schmidt’s acquaintance with Mabel grew, so did his sense of awe. He felt each time he entered her room that he was walking on holy ground. Often, he would read a Scripture to Mabel and from memory, she would mouth the words along with him. Then, she might break into a song praising God. “I never heard her speak of loneliness or pain except in the stress she placed on certain lines in certain hymns,” Schmidt recalls. The student chaplain began going to Mabel’s room with pen in hand, ready to jot down the amazing things that she would say.

During one week, Schmidt says, he was stressing out, thinking about exams at seminary and a million other things when the question dawned on him, “What does Mabel have to think about—hour after hour, day after day, week after week, not even able to know if it’s day or night?” So, Schmidt decided to ask Mabel the next time he saw her. “Mabel,” he asked, “what do you think about when you lie here?” Listen closely to Schmidt’s recollection:

“...’I think about Jesus...[she said]’ I sat there, and thought for a moment about the difficulty, for me of thinking about Jesus for even five minutes, and I asked, ‘What do you think about Jesus?’ She replied slowly and deliberately as I wrote...’I think about how good He’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me, you know...I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied...Lots of folks wouldn’t care much for what I think...But I don’t care. I’d rather have Jesus. He’s all the world to me.’

Although Mable was blind, nearly deaf, suffering from cancer, confined to her bed, and living in circumstances that some might consider pure hell, she was more alive and happier and, as she said satisfied, than most of the people that you and I encounter each day at work, at school, in the mall, maybe even when we look in the mirror. She was truly living amid all the walking dead who populate this planet! What was her secret?

In today’s Bible lesson, Jesus uses interesting images to describe Himself, God the Father, and you and me. For those of you who have heard or read these words before, try to listen to them as though you’re hearing them for the first time and let the imagery sink in:

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in Me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit He prunes to make it bear more fruit...Abide in Me [in other words, draw life from Me]. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in Me...My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become My disciples...”

Life—abundant, everlasting, ever-loving life comes from Jesus Christ. Without Jesus’ life filling us, we are the walking dead, people without hope, joyless machines moving from day to day. But when we stay connected with Jesus, if we abide with Jesus, even when we’re as sick and old as Mabel was, we’ll be filled with life.

Jesus says that we’ll bear fruit. But what on earth does that mean?

Mildred Hondorf was an elementary music teacher in Iowa who also gave private piano lessons. After a long career, she hadn’t produced any musical prodigees, but because she demanded excellence from her students, they usually learned. Once, an eleven year old boy named Robby asked if he could take piano lessons. Although Mildred knew that Robby was tone-deaf and had no rhythm, she relented when he told her, “I want my mom to hear me play well just once.” Robby took lessons from Mrs. Hondorf and things went pretty much as she’d expected. Robby was terrible! There were a few recitals over the course of the year. Robby’s mom would be there, clap for her son’s performances, wave at the piano teacher, and make her exit.

Then, about six weeks before the big end-of-the-year recital, Robby stopped coming for his lessons. Mildred was frankly relieved. On the night before the recital, Robby called her though and announced that he wanted to play. He had to play. “But, Robby,” she said, “you haven’t had a lesson for six weeks.” “I know,” he said, “but I’ve just got to play well for my mom tomorrow!” Against her better judgment, Mildred tacked Robby on at the very end of the recital program. He showed up the next night, his hair a mess, his clothes all wrinkled, and before a virtually-silent auditorium, he sat down at the piano. He played Mozart’s Twenty-First Concerto in C-Major.

People couldn’t believe what they heard! Robby’s playing had every member of the audience listening with rapt attention. When he finished, they stood to applaud and Mildred, tears in her eyes, ran to Robby and said, “You’ve never played like that before! What happened over the past six weeks?” “Well, Mrs. Hondorf,” he explained, “my mother got really sick six weeks ago and I had to stay close to home. She died yesterday. But you see, she was born deaf and today was the first time she ever got to hear me play.”

Robbie’s performance at the piano recital that day was an act of love. Those are the kinds of acts that are the very fabric of life when we remain connected to Jesus.

Do you want to really live—and not be a dead man or dead woman walking? Latch onto Jesus, holding onto Him as your most important friend. Love will be the fruit you bear and even in adversity you’ll know joy. And no matter what, that’s an awesome way to live!

[The "mouse in a cookie jar" quote is something told to the late Corrie ten Boom by her father. Corrie, who along with her family, helped Jews escape from occupied Holland during the Second World War was baffled by her pastor's unwillingness to help with the effort. This was her father's explanation.

[The story of Mabel, as mentioned, comes from John Ortberg's phenomenal book, The Life You've Always Wanted. I highly recommend it! Mabel's is a true story.

[The story of Mildred and Robby was told by Pastor Gerald Mann in a message he gave at Riverbend Church in Austin, Texas. I may have the spelling of Mildred's last name wrong. But it's a true story.]